Policy Papers

How should we commemorate wars? Lessons from the nineteenth century

Karine Varley |

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Executive Summary

  • The controversy triggered by former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s comments about how the First World War should be taught and remembered has brought war commemoration to the forefront of public debate.


  • As Britain and the wider world prepare to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, a series of other important anniversaries in 2014 and 2015 have raised wider questions about how and why wars should be remembered. Concerns about the politicisation of war commemoration in particular have triggered fresh debates about the role of government in shaping the commemorative agenda.


  • Looking back beyond the First World War, the history of how war commemoration developed in the nineteenth century shows that it has always been intensely politicised. Shifts in attitudes towards death in war meant that any losses on the battlefield had to be justified. War commemorations therefore grew from efforts to portray soldiers’ deaths as sacrifices for a higher cause.


  • The experiences of war commemoration in the nineteenth century provide a useful model for today’s policy makers about the role of the state in such a sensitive area. The limited involvement of central government in Franco-Prussian War commemorations enabled communities to express their own memories in ways that were meaningful to them. Rather than seeking to put forward a single, potentially divisive and exclusionary version of the past, government facilitated the development of multiple memories.


  • Policy makers today should understand that debating the nature of wars, and how and why they were fought, does not dishonour the memory of the dead. It is important that respect for the sacrifices and heroism of the dead is not used a justification for curbing debate. 


Just two days into the start of the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, Michael Gove wrote an article for the Daily Mail criticising ‘misunderstandings and misrepresentations’ that served to ‘denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage’. He attacked ‘left-wing’ depictions of incompetent military commanders leading the armed forces in an essentially futile conflict, and insisted that it was a ‘just war’ fought by men who believed it to be a ‘noble cause’. The nature and tone of Gove’s intervention, and his assertion that the war was fought against aggressive German expansionism, has caused concern about the politicisation of the centenary commemorations. Despite calling for an open debate, Gove’s pronouncements have raised fears about the advancement of a single - controversial and hotly contested - version of the First World War to the exclusion of other interpretations. Critics, including many leading historians, have condemned the use of history for political ends, calling instead for calm reflection and balanced debate. The tone of some of the arguments that have since erupted across sections of the media might seem particularly distasteful because of the magnitude of the horrors unleashed in 1914 and the scale of the losses. But the episode has served to highlight the wider dangers of government attempts to direct the character of war remembrance.

This year and next, a series of anniversaries, including the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, has placed war commemoration at forefront of public attention and political agendas. The desire to remember these conflicts has mobilised governments, especially as they seek to use commemorations to transmit particular memories to younger generations and the public. This policy paper explores the lessons that can be drawn from the history of nineteenth-century war commemoration in Britain and Europe. Often assumed to have emerged from the devastating losses of the First World War, war commemorations centring upon ordinary soldiers grew from nineteenth-century struggles to define the meaning of death in war. As they grew, establishing many of the practices that became common after the First World War, acts of remembrance sought to legitimise death on the battlefield as a heroic sacrifice for a particular cause. War commemorations were used by rival factions to advance their own political agendas, becoming highly contentious as a consequence. The history of these developments during the nineteenth century therefore shows that debates about the politicisation of war commemorations are not new. It underlines the problems of governments seeking to use war remembrance to express ideas about national identity or to manipulate memories for political ends.

The first section of this policy paper explores how changes in the treatment of the dead from the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 were shaped by broader shifts in how wars were fought and perceived. The second section looks at cultural shifts. With relationships between armies, soldiers and nations evolving, death in war came to be viewed as something that had to be justified with reference to a noble cause. The third section examines how soldiers’ deaths were used to legitimise political agendas. As the dead were cast as heroic martyrs, their memories came to be bitterly contested and divisive. The final section considers the lessons that might be drawn from the experiences of nineteenth-century war commemorations. With the state taking only a limited role in shaping how wars were remembered, communities developed their own commemorations to express their own memories.

Changing attitudes towards the war dead

The development of mass war commemoration during the nineteenth century was closely connected with the changing treatment of those who died in combat. The permanent burial and memorialisation of ordinary soldiers killed on the battlefield is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until well into the nineteenth century, soldiers’ remains were often simply left to decompose where they had fallen, their deaths not marked in any meaningful manner. As a result, in the decades that followed the Napoleonic Wars, visitors were able to collect gruesome mementoes from the battlefields, including skulls and even soldiers’ thumbs. Tourist guides, such as John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers, romanticised the crops fertilised by decomposing corpses as memorials to the fallen. Conditions had not much improved by the mid-nineteenth century. Henry Dunant described horrific scenes following the fighting between Austrian, Sardinian and French forces in the Battle of Solferino in 1859. After the Austrian retreat, he witnessed dead soldiers having their clothing stolen by thieves while their bodies were attacked by birds of prey. Dunant’s account of the conditions endured by soldiers, especially the wounded, shocked many across Europe and led to the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Just as ordinary soldiers were neglected in death on the battlefield, so they were also neglected in commemorations that focused overwhelmingly on the actions of heroic generals. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris may have been built to honour Napoleon’s Grande Armée, but it only named the Emperor’s generals. In Britain, soldiers and sailors were similarly overlooked as the state sought to turn St Paul’s Cathedral into an official memorial site dedicated to the heroic officers who had served in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column elevated the admiral 52 metres above onlookers, as though he had been transformed into a kind of quasi-divine figure far removed from those who had served under him. The experiences of the Crimean War of 1854-56 and the loss of over three-quarters of a million soldiers triggered efforts by France, Russia and Britain to dedicate ossuaries and chapels to their war dead. Despite these gestures, however, not all the dead were treated respectfully. The Times reported that donkeys grazed where the soldiers had been buried, while British and Russian officers received privileged treatment over ordinary soldiers, who were interred anonymously in mass graves.

It was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 that set the precedent in Europe and established the practices for the treatment of the war dead that were to be adopted in the First World War and all subsequent conflicts. The conflict, which saw French forces defeated by an alliance of Prussia, the North German Confederation and the southern German states, was fought with deadly new weapons such as the breech-loading Chassepot rifle. In total, around 139,000 French and 52,627 German soldiers died in just six months of fighting. For the first time in European history, the peace terms laid out in the 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt, which ended the war, included an obligation that France and the newly-unified German state ‘respect and maintain soldiers’ graves’ in perpetuity. As a result, with most of the dead lying on French territory, the French state engaged in an unprecedented effort to bury 87,396 men in individual or mass graves at a total cost of over two million francs. The new respect accorded to the burial of the dead was matched by an unprecedented new impulse to commemorate their sacrifices. If previously the focus had been on celebrating the exploits of military leaders, now the emphasis was placed firmly upon ordinary soldiers. Seven years after the Franco-Prussian War, over 457 war memorials had been erected and many more were unveiled in the years that followed. Local authorities, communities and veterans mobilised to honour the fallen and to keep their memories alive. Across France and Germany, commemorations were regularly attended by tens of thousands of people until the outbreak of the First World War.

Cultural shifts

Behind these changes in the treatment of the war dead were broader cultural, social and political shifts in attitudes towards death, war and the nation. Where once death had been an accepted and ever-present spectre, by the early nineteenth century, there was a growing unwillingness to accept separation and loss. From the wealthiest to the poorest in society, all began to invest in the best funeral services, burials and tombs their means would allow. The transformation in attitudes towards the war dead was also shaped by broader shifts in public attitudes towards war. New technologies brought the realities of the frontline closer than ever before to civilian audiences. War correspondents such as William Howard Russell of The Times vividly exposed some of the horrors of modern battlefields, transmitting their reports by telegraph so that they could go to press at unprecedented speeds. Photographers were now able to capture if not the fighting itself, then at least the deadly aftermath. Artists responded with paintings that sought to depict harsh realities rather than romanticised heroism. Elizabeth Thompson’s Calling the Roll of 1874 portrayed grenadiers during the Crimean War with a grim frankness that shocked British audiences. The development of international agreements, such as the Geneva Convention of 1864 which established new laws on the treatment of the wounded and prisoners of war, also changed public views towards war. Together with the emergence of humanitarian movements and organisations such as the Red Cross, their effect was to help transform the relationship between soldiers and citizens, and between armies and the societies to which they belonged.

Beginning with the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, nineteenth century conflicts brought significant shifts in the experience of combat, transforming citizens into soldiers and changing the relationship between armies and nations. No longer drawn from the ranks of the criminal classes, armies began to comprise soldiers whose newly-acquired right to vote gave them a political stake in the nation. As such, they had greater motivation to fight, and a greater reason not to die. Death in combat therefore came to be viewed as both the loss of a valued citizen and a human tragedy. With social and cultural fears of loss and declining religious faith, it became necessary to reconfigure patriotism in terms that would inspire loyalty and demand sacrifice. Influenced by religious (and especially Christian) rituals and language, patriotic self-sacrifice was therefore represented in cultural and political discourse as giving meaning to life as the ultimate act of devotion to one’s country.

The cult of sacrifice and politics

Changing attitudes towards death in war during the nineteenth century raised fundamental questions about what men were fighting for. Were soldiers dying for their monarch or emperor, their nation, or for something else? Were they sacrificing their lives to defend particular values, and if so, what were those values and who defined them?

Many of the war commemorations of the late nineteenth century sought to use memories of soldiers’ sacrifices to construct narratives of the national character forged on the battlefield. In Britain, the commemoration of the Crimean War helped lay the foundations for myths of the soldier fighting to defend the values and honour of the nation. In political discourse, as well as in works of literature, art and music, the dead were portrayed not simply as saintly martyrs, but as Christian soldiers selflessly fighting a righteous war. After the humiliating setbacks and controversial introduction of concentration camps by British forces in the Boer Wars of 1881-82 and 1899-1902, acts of war remembrance sought to reaffirm beliefs in Britain’s military and moral superiority. At Eton College in 1908, a new memorial hall and library sought to inspire future generations by honouring the heroic conduct of the dead, while at Harrow School in 1902, a transept in the chapel sought to assert Christian notions of self-sacrifice as being fundamental to British national values.

Justifying the sacrifices of fallen soldiers required narratives and noble causes. To suggest that they might have died for some trivial cause or even in vain was culturally and politically unpalatable. As a result, the war dead were elevated to the status of martyrs, and the living had a duty to honour their sacrifice. While commemorating the achievements of noted public figures in the arts and sciences could be educative and even unifying, the war dead were considered to offer still greater potential. As a collective, anonymous mass, their individual lives were unknown. They were treated as blank canvases whose memories could be appropriated and shaped at will. The war dead therefore came to be seen as the ultimate legitimising tools for those seeking to advance a political agenda. However, framing death in war as a sacrifice for a noble and just cause served to make acts of remembrance deeply divisive. No political narrative imposed upon the fallen could ever be universally accepted. Nor could respect for the dead silence opposing views.

In the aftermath of the crushing French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, conflicting representations of soldiers’ sacrifice dominated the debate about the political future of France. For Catholics, fallen soldiers were martyrs whose sacrifices would redeem France and set it back on a path of Christian and monarchist values. Anti-clerical republicans, however, used memories of soldiers’ sacrifices to legitimise their vision of the French nation's revolutionary heritage. As rival factions sought to fill the political vacuum left by the French military defeat, war commemorations developed to express a diverse, and often conflicting, range of memories.

However, aside from providing limited financial assistance towards the construction of a small number of war memorials deemed to have artistic merit, the French state played no official role in the commemoration of the Franco-Prussian War. The French Republic fulfilled its treaty obligations to provide permanent resting-places for the war dead, but did not seek to drive the commemorative agenda. There was no national day of remembrance or national war memorial, and no equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (an anonymous combatant memorialised as a symbol of the nation’s dead after the First World War). Government ministers expressed their views on how the Franco-Prussian War might be remembered, but the state left it to local communities, veterans and the families of the dead to decide how they wanted to commemorate the fallen. There was little public demand for central government organisation of war remembrance, and within government, there was little desire to encroach upon local initiatives. Even in Germany, where Sedan Day was a nationwide holiday to celebrate the 1871 victory over France, events were organised locally, reflecting the memories of the communities who participated in them. Because most of the dead were buried in France, German war commemorations were mainly centred upon the former French territory of Alsace-Lorraine which was annexed by Germany in 1871. German war veterans’ associations worked with local communities to organise annual ceremonies and to erect memorials in honour of both nations’ dead. The relative absence of state involvement helped acts of remembrance to proliferate and endure, making the Franco-Prussian War the most widely-commemorated conflict in Europe before 1914.

Conclusions: lessons from the nineteenth century

Perhaps inevitably, the milestone anniversaries of several important conflicts in 2014 and 2015 are vulnerable to political exploitation. Critics have suggested that it is no coincidence that the Scottish National Party (SNP) chose 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over English forces in the Battle of Bannockburn, to hold a referendum on independence for Scotland. Moreover, despite the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announcing funds towards the restoration of the battle site of Waterloo to commemorate the bicentenary of the defeat of Napoleon, critics have accused the government of refusing to mark the anniversary for fear of offending French allies. However, the centenary of the First World War has so far provoked the most intense debates about the purposes of remembrance and commemoration and what role the government should take.

The development of modern practices of war commemoration during the nineteenth century shows that they have always been politicised and contested. At a time of intense political and social upheaval that began in the late eighteenth century, governments, armies, religious institutions, cultural actors, local communities and other interested parties attempted to impose narratives upon the dead to legitimise their own agendas. Yet disagreements over war remembrance, however deep or politicised, need not in themselves be a cause for concern. It is important that policy makers today understand that debating the nature of wars, and how and why they were fought, is not to dishonour the memory of the dead, and that respect for the sacrifices and heroism of the dead is not used as a justification for curbing debate.

Organisers of remembrance ceremonies or educational and cultural initiatives to honour past wars have the difficult task of navigating the complex and sometimes blurred lines of commemoration, legitimisation and glorification. Even if not aiming to justify wars or the devastating losses they caused, there are significant political and cultural pressures to draw meaning from past conflicts and to avoid suggesting that so many deaths might have been in vain or without just purpose.

Yet soldiers’ experiences and motivations defy simplistic classifications and rarely fit political narratives. Personal testimonies reveal a complex picture of responses ranging from patriotism to comradeship to self-preservation. At a time when the legitimacy and relevance of the nation are being challenged by globalisation, mass migration, identity politics and many other forces, it may be tempting for governments to seek to use wars to construct a national identity rooted in a particular vision of the past. Yet even if soldiers’ sacrifices could be moulded into a simply-defined defence of the nation and its values against an external enemy, this is likely to prove divisive and even counter-productive. Attempts to create a single national memory by excluding alternative perspectives are detrimental to efforts to make war commemorations inclusive and meaningful to a broad spectrum of society.

As attentions turn towards marking the anniversaries of 2014 and 2015, the experiences of war commemoration in the nineteenth century provide policy makers with important lessons about how to avoid some of the potential pitfalls surrounding the politicisation of war commemoration. Before the outbreak of the First World War, the Franco-Prussian War was the most widely commemorated conflict in Europe. Because it took place before the expansion of the state in the twentieth century, it provides a model of war remembrance led by local communities, war veterans, the families of the dead and other interested parties.

The legal obligation to bury all soldiers in perpetuity that was laid out in the 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt may have represented an important watershed in how wars were remembered, but it did not lead to the state seeking to determine the national commemorative agenda in the late nineteenth century. Without central government intervention, local communities were able to develop their own ceremonies, museums, chapels and war memorials that expressed their memories and understandings of why the conflict had been fought. As a result, Franco-Prussian War commemorations reflected a broad range of political, social and cultural memories that may have clashed, but that engaged a diverse and divided country. Catholic veterans and communities were able to build museums and chapels to honour the fallen as Christian martyrs for France, while anti-clerical republicans were able to remember the dead in secular ceremonies and memorials. The varied and sometimes conflicting nature of the commemorations meant that they retained their power to mobilise and engage communities until the outbreak of the First World War.

The experiences of the nineteenth century show that limited central government direction enables local and community involvement to flourish. Rather than leading to banal or meaningless war commemorations that fail to connect with the wider public, it offers a means by which war remembrance can remain meaningful, helping to deepen public understanding of past conflicts. Today there is greater expectation of public funding for commemorative activities than was the case in the nineteenth century, when initiatives relied upon donations. But involving a broad cross-section of society in initiating and organising activities can help policy makers assure taxpayers that public money is being spent on meaningful projects. By facilitating the expression of multiple memories, communities are better able to take ownership of war commemorations, and in so doing, develop their own ways of understanding the significance of soldiers’ sacrifices. 

Further Reading

Confino, Alon, The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Wurttemberg, Imperial Germany, and National Memory, 1871-1918 (Chapel Hill, 1997)

Forrest, Alan, François, Etienne, and Hagemann, Karen (eds.), War Memories: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in Modern European Culture (Basingstoke, 2012)

Förster, Stig, and Nagler, Jörg (eds.), On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification (Washington DC, 1997)

Mosse, George L., Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (New York, 1990)

Varley, Karine, Under the Shadow of Defeat: The War of 1870-71 in French Memory (Basingstoke, 2008)

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